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Steve Zachary Fosters a Love for the Outdoors

10/27/2014 12:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Lessons of Lassen

November 2014
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Michelle Hickok

When a yellow school bus winds its way to the entry gates of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the
students inside are on the cusp of one of the most remarkable learning experiences of their school years.

“Kids step off the bus and they don’t have the four walls,” says Steve Zachary, education specialist at the park. What they do have is access to the only park that inhabits all four types of volcanoes—a direct link to a standard elementary curriculum—and years of Zachary’s experience bringing lessons from the outdoors alive.

“I try to share techniques with teachers about working with kids in the outdoors,” he says. “I try to teach them that there’s not a place that you can’t share a lesson using all sorts of different techniques.”

Raised in Orange County, Zachary says, “My parents were really into the outdoors. We always went to national parks.” They instilled in him a love of nature, from deserts to mountains to oceans. “These seeds are planted when you’re young,” he adds.

It was fitting then, that Zachary’s first job after completing college was at the nonprofit University of the Wilderness in Evergreen, Colo. There he ran wilderness trips for colleges across the country from the Florida Everglades to the Rocky Mountains to the desert Southwest. His courses encompassed topics from natural history to politics of wilderness areas.

In the late 1980s, the National Park System developed the Parks as Classrooms program. Zachary received a phone call. At that time he had settled into a teaching position at Mendocino College. Would he be interested in a seasonal position at Lassen Park getting the Parks as Classrooms project up and running?, the caller asked.

He readily accepted the challenge. That seasonal work turned permanent and Zachary, then in his 40s, embarked on a career in the national park system that has helped put Lassen Park on the world map, and planted seeds in the hearts and minds of thousands of schoolchildren, propelling more than one to careers in natural resources.

These days, when someone calls to arrange a park service requiring a fee, they may just end up talking with Michelle D’Ulisse. In 1995, she was part of the first class of high school students acting as interpretive summer interns that Zachary and a Tehama County Department of Education partner brought into the park.

“Those kids, since 1995, have put in more than 24,000 volunteer hours,” he says with pride.

Zachary keeps youth just as active in winter, having developed a popular winter ecology school program that starts his phone ringing off the hook on November 1, when he begins taking reservations for class visits. The program maintains close to 150 pairs of snowshoes that allow students to trek into the snow-covered park to learn.

The unique volcanic properties of the park have caught the attention of NASA’s Astro-Biology Institute at the Ames Research Center for its applications to the Mars mission. Through partnership with the park and NASA, Red Bluff High School students study the microbial life forms of the geothermal areas of the park. “It’s the only program of its type in the nation,” says Zachary.

In the midst of generating programs for Lassen Park, Zachary also embarked on a remarkable journey to help the country of Nepal develop its own park system.

“I went over to Nepal at the request of the Peace Corps,” says Zachary of the opportunity of a lifetime that began in 1996. “They had a program where they wanted volunteers to work in national parks to help with ecotourism.”

That call brought him to Schey Phosundo, the largest park in Nepal and its most well preserved. “The culture there,” he says with pause. “It’s like you went back in time to Tibetan culture of 1,000 years ago. It was a fairly new park and actually they didn’t let foreigners in until the late 1980s.”

The work was rugged and conditions primitive, but Zachary thrived. “When I got back, I got this call from the Secretary of the Interior of National Affairs,” he says. UNESCO was interested in making Schey Phosundo a World Heritage Site. Zachary signed on as manager for a partnership for biodiversity with the project.

While remaining based at Lassen Park, Zachary spent five years making extended trips to Nepal working on park projects there. A proud moment was when he was able to host a team from Nepal at his California home park. “It was a real international event as far as having such dignitaries coming to Lassen,” he says. He took the group snowshoeing.

These days, Zachary is inching close to retirement, but can’t quite be pinned down for a date. He wants to travel, for sure, but he’s not quite over teaching. “I love working and sharing a love of the earth with children,” he says. “They’re the future. That’s what it’s all about.”


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